Lyric Theatre, Belfast
10 September to 5 October
What on earth could be done with a new production of Shirley Valentine that has not already been done before? The challenge to a director to mix it up a bit is not, however, an uncomfortable one. Its very title ensures a copper-fastened commercial hit, in similar vein to Willy Russell’s other evergreen favourite Educating Rita, whose 2016 box office success must surely have influenced this latest programming decision by the Lyric’s executive director Jimmy Fay.
Cushioned by Russell’s sharp, perceptive, tuned-in writing, the easy option would be to find a good actor and let the script do the rest. But, in the inventive hands and imagination of Patrick J. O’Reilly, the easy option is never a possibility. His directorial vision hinges on physical expression and a restless determination to go the extra performance mile. In the searching, often playful context created by O’Reilly, Oisín Kearney’s 1980s Belfastised version sings sweetly off a different song sheet, leaving it to the audience to work out the dramatic implications of the political conflict stalking the city at that time.
The untimely death of assistant director Julie Maxwell midway through rehearsals brought grief and heightened emotion to the room and the stage. It is to the immense credit of the creative team and the professional discipline of Tara Lynne O’Neill that she so successfully delivers, with irresistible brio, Shirley Bradshaw, a vulnerable middle-aged woman whose personal journey connects deeply at an individual level.
You couldn’t not love her as, guided by O’Reilly’s meticulous choreography, she beats a familiar daily path around her cell-like kitchen, a domestic drudge, a slave to her family, suppressing the urge to cut loose and revive the spirited, mischievous girl she used to be. With a winning twinkle in her eye, O’Neill flawlessly navigates Russell’s incessant, self-deprecating humour, but beneath the gags and the funny stories lies desperation. The moment when she picks up her suitcase and heads for the door is captured in a splendidly unexpected, daring piece of stagecraft.
The pace drops briefly at the start of the second act when, in the beautifully lit sunshine of Corfu, colour and romance return to her previously unused life. But it quickly picks up as this plucky everywoman character learns to love herself, celebrate her femininity and rediscover Shirley Valentine.
This review was first published by The Stage on 12 September 2019.